Organizations and managers should organise their work around Projects.
There is no better way to finish a year full of exciting news with Roger Martin. Roger has an extraordinary career, full of achievements and recognitions. In 2017 he was named the world’s #1 management thinker by Thinkers50. He has published 25 articles in Harvard Business Review and 11 bestselling books!
Two things struck me in our conversation:
Roger has an astonishing ability to simplify complex matters, cut through the chase and explain with plain words the essences of some of the most intricate management topics, mainly around strategy.
The second eye opening was Roger is actually one of the first thought leaders who wrote about the importance of projects and project management in his HBR article “Rethinking the Decision Factory”.
“My advocacy vis a vis projects is that the entire decision factory (white collars work) should be thought of as nothing but projects. Projects, projects and more projects; managers should organise their life around projects.”
“I would argue that companies that have organised white collar work around projects are winning.”
You can find an extract of the interview here and the full video version on the Project Revolution youtube channel. Hope you enjoy it and learn from Roger’s extraordinary wisdom. I want to take the opportunity to thank your for reading my post this year. Not easy to find the time when there is so much information around us.
Finally, I wish you an extraordinary Holiday’s season with your loved ones, and a fabulous 2019!
In 2017, Roger was named the world’s #1 management thinker by Thinkers50, a biannual ranking of the most influential global business thinkers. A Canadian from Wallenstein, Ontario, Roger received his AB from Harvard College, with a concentration in Economics, in 1979 and his MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1981. Roger is a trusted strategy advisor to the CEOs of companies worldwide including Procter & Gamble, Lego and Verizon.
He has published 11 books the most recent of which are Creating Great Choiceswritten with Jennifer Riel (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) Getting Beyond Better written with Sally Osberg (HBRP, 2015) and Playing to Win written with A.G. Lafley (HBRP, 2013), which won the award for Best Book of 2012-13 by the Thinkers50. He has written 25 Harvard Business Review articles.
Today is a special day as I have the pleasure to interview Roger Martin, the world’s number one management thinker, author of 11 bestselling books and 25 Harvard Business Review articles, awarded Dean of the year while transforming Rotman…. and an amazing person.
Antonio: Thank you Roger for dedicating some of your precious time to share your views with our experts, who are eager to learn from you.
Roger: It’s a great pleasure, Antonio. As I told you during the Thinkers 50 awards ceremony, this community of people who are trying to bridge the world of rigorous academic thought with actual practice is an important community and so I’m thrilled to be talking to you this morning. Because you’re a member of that small but important community.
Antonio: Thank you Roger. Let me start by asking you a bit about your background and history. When you were a kid, Roger, did you want to be a guru like you are now?
Roger: No, no, not really. I guess what I did know is that I loved business. My father was an entrepreneur, he started his company on animal feed manufacturing from scratch when I was two. He had all the struggles that entrepreneurs have. A couple of times he almost went out of business when I was growing up. He went through crises but he was totally dedicated to serving his customers and having a great product.
So I grew a love for business and how it operated, how to think about customers and employees and your community. I understood the importance of the enterprise supporting the community. I think it was more those matters I knew I wanted to dedicate my life.
Antonio: And when did it become more clear that you wanted to be a thinker, an influencer. When was that moment, how did it happen?
Roger: You know I think it happened while I was at Monitor. As you probably know I was one of the guys that built up the company. What became more evident over time was that consultants from all over Monitor would come to me and say: “Roger, have you come across your work with this issue or written anything about that”.
Senior partners at Monitor didn’t write stuff down regularly and say here’s what I learned on this study.
While I created a whole portfolio of memo’s I’d written to CEOs about many different topics. It was probably in the 90s when I realised I did something a little bit different than others. Monitor had fantastic consultants that would go in and solve problems for companies. But they didn’t step back and say: “What did all this mean? Is there a general trend here?” It became evident to me that I liked that and it was valuable because the Monitor people would keep coming to me.
Antonio: And then you became the Dean of Rotman Business School. One of the institutions that I see more hard to change are business schools. And you did that, you transformed Rotman. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Roger: Sure. I sometimes wonder myself. Because you’re right, business schools are very difficult to change, it was a tough challenge. My strategy was to focus on growing the business school dramatically. Get everybody more money to do what they’re doing now, pay them higher salaries, give them more research money to do even more things. They won’t begrudge the fact that I’m getting even still more money, to new initiatives affecting design, country competitiveness….
I inherited a budget of about $13 million, when I left it was $130 million. When I double or triple the existing $13 million everybody was saying: Wow, this new dean he’s giving us more resources to do what we want to do.
And then they will be supportive of the additional things that I’m doing, even if they might think I don’t know if that’s good and useful stuff. But they’d say: Well, let him do that because he’s helping me, not bothering me. He’s making my life easier not harder. And that, I think, was the secret.
Antonio: I’ve done a lot of change management and I’ve never heard about a theory like yours. I think there’s room for another book there, Roger. You engage the people by giving them more freedom and more resources to try more things. More projects in the end. And there is no confrontation. Very interesting.
Roger: And it really supported the things that they did. We had a great guy, Joel Baum who was then reasonably senior but not yet a super star in strategic management. He had a vision for how he could build a strategy department at the school. And I said: “Do it. Do it. I’ll give you the resources, but you have to aim for being one of the top strategy departments on the planet.”
So I asked faculty and staff if they had projects in mind. We did the same in accounting. We’re now one of the top accounting business schools. The departments that said we want to just do more of what we’re doing, they were staying with the same resources.
Antonio: You were acting as an executive sponsor: supporting the team, not just with providing resources, but with stretching their mind and setting ambitious goals and following through.
Roger: And clearing their paths… I think of this like American football, the part of the team at the front clearing the path so that the fast guys at the back can score touchdowns.
Let’s make sure there are not a lot of people disturbing Joe while he is doing his projects.
For example, we didn’t actually have in the plan hiring a full Professor in strategic management, we had only room for an Assistant Professor. But then a full Professor came by and said: Well, I like what you’re doing”.
Rather than saying “oh Joe, you’ve got to go back to the Committee to get this upgraded” and the university is going to say: “Well, we didn’t have a slot for that”. I just said: “Hire him. I’ll figure out all that other stuff, you’ve been able to attract this awesome full Professor in exactly the area you want. You did the hard work of building a department that was worthy of this person wanting to come. I’ll take care of the messy stuff around that.”
Antonio: Roger you have published 11 books, 25 HBR articles, where do you find the inspiration?
Roger: I think it comes from my dad, honestly. Who was not highly educated, he was a High School educated entrepreneur. I always say that I learned more from him than I learned from two years at Harvard Business School. He always wanted solutions. Elegant and simple solutions. I think that’s why my writing strives to be simple.
Inspiration comes very naturally. All the articles I write are just a result of me hanging around with senior leaders in the world of business, watching what bothers them, confuses them, annoys them, frustrates them.
My most important academic mentor is a wonderful man, named Chris Argyris , one of the co-founders of the Yale School of Management.
And then along came Harvard Business School, Professor and he was a proponent of action learning. He says: “Unfortunately you’ll learn less in classrooms than you wish and retain little of it against learning while doing”.
My entire approach to all of the books and articles that I’ve written is action learning. I don’t say: Maybe I could study the following. And maybe I could create a survey or develop a database or dataset. I’ve never done that.
What I say is: “Wow if companies had a tool that could do this or they could do this CEOs would be helped. Then I’ll do research based on that”.
Antonio: Let me move now into our field of projects and project management. Our feeling has been that we’ve been a bit ignored by the big thinkers and business schools. What are your views about projects in general Roger?
Roger: Well, I mean I’m in your camp, entirely. The article I would point to on this is my HBR article on “Rethinking the decision factory” . In which I say that modern white collar life is project management. It isn’t anything other than projects and project management.
In an assembly line you would come to work at whenever your shifts are; let’s say 9am and you do the same work until 5pm and then come back the next day. These are flat jobs, you’re hired to do a task and do it the same every day. And that’s in those and then I say well okay, what’s the job of all those people who live in office towers in the same company?
I work a lot with Procter & Gamble . They have people working in plants producing pampers, head and shoulders, fairy, tide … but then you have a bunch of people working in office towers too, all over the world. What do those people do? They manufacture decisions: every day they come into work and assemble decisions.
Unlike in the manufacturing plant where the service operation is the same all the time – it’s flat. In the decision factory it’s all curves, up and down. In fact the tricky thing for that world is mainly that these things compound on one another. If you only have the product relaunch underway that’s great. But if you have a quality problem in Turkey and you’re the Global Brand Manager of Pampers, that’s another project.
My view on project management: if a person like you observing project management says that they are done badly, is because we structured those jobs as if they’re flat jobs.
Antonio: Absolutely. It makes lots of sense.
Roger: In fact, there might be a 5% or 10% of the job of everybody who works in one of those towers that is flat.
You know, every Monday morning from 8 to 9 you’d have a meeting, that could be considered as flat and routine. But at least 80% and probably closer to 95% are an amalgam of projects – a portfolio of projects. Instead of thinking my life is projects, the average person living in one of those buildings thinks my life is this regular job and then I have these damn projects which get in the way of my regular job.And of course they get mismanaged.
My advocacy vis a vis projects is that the entire decision factory should be thought of as nothing but projects. Project, project, projects and more projects; managers should organise their life around projects.
I think that maybe it’s because I used to live in a professional service firm where everything is a project. In fact, the white collar part of an organization should look more like professional service firms.
I think the difficulty with project management is mostly contextual. It’s not the substance of the work itself. I think people can run projects eventually, but they are often in the wrong.
I believe that over time we’re going to migrate. It is going to take 50 years; it always does in the world of business. All firms will look more like today’s professional service firm. There will be a very, very small number of flat jobs in the decision factory and the rest will be projects.
Antonio: How does productivity affect to the decision factory?
Roger: In fact, there has not been productivity growth in the decision factory, because, in general, they’re doing things, kind of, grotesquely inefficiently.
Labour productivity growth in the United States until the mid-70s was 3%-4%, year after year, constantly. Then it dropped, it dropped to 1 to 1.5% growth. The US is getting less productive or its productivity increase is slowing. But if you look at plant or manufacturing operation productivity, nothing has changed, it is still bopping along at 3 to 4% increase. But productivity growth in the decision factories has been close to zero.
Antonio: Very interesting. Can you please elaborate a bit further on the concept?
Roger: One of the first assignments we did at Monitor was a study for Arthur Andersen on what they could do besides auditing. We helped them create what was then known as the Systems Integration Practice of Arthur Andersen, which then became Anderson Consulting and later Accenture. The study was done in ’85 or ’86, 30 years ago. And how big is Accenture now? I think last time I checked about $50 billion company.
Incredible growth, right, that’s incredible growth. Deloitte is a $35 billion maybe it’s even $40 billion company now. McKinsey is approaching $10 billion company.
I would argue that companies that have organised white collar work around projects are winning.
McKinsey can show in one day with 50 consultants and you are maybe ten times bigger ($100 billion company), but you cannot find 50 white collar workers. Because they’re all tied down to existing jobs.
I think that in terms of evolutionary fitness the professional service firms are more evolutionarily fit in terms of their white collar activities than the world’s large corporations and that’s why the world’s large corporations are under so much scrutiny and pressure. It’s because they’re like dinosaurs.
That’s why I think you and I are in common field. Maybe we approach it a little bit differently, but unless we bring the project as the unit of work, we’re going to be having these dinosaurs getting less and less fit for this changing globalising environment. We will have to make them more fit. That would be my goal vis a vis projects.
Antonio: What you are saying is music to my ears Roger. A lecture on the evolution of projects and project management. I recently talked to Rita McGrath, and she shares our views. I was recently talking to an IBM HR person and she told me that soon they will no longer have job descriptions, the will just have project descriptions.
Roger: Really. Oh wow. That’s cool. That’s cool I should talk to her. I mean that’s a breakthrough for a big company, because yes I often challenge people on job descriptions. I say, let’s just look at your job description, right. And for starters most executives can’t find it. But I make them find it and then I say: “I think you’re being insubordinate”. And they’re like: “What do you mean?” I say: “Well let’s look at what you do versus what it says you do. There’s almost no link, there’s almost no link and so most job descriptions are placeholders, placeholders to say: I guess we’ve got to get somebody who looks like this and then they end up doing if you just ask what they actually do. There’s almost no resemblance…
So if IBM is doing that, that is very clever, that is very clever, that’s a step in the right direction in both of the ways you and I think.
Antonio: Roger, one final question. Project Managers are often considered technical and tactical. What are the skills they need to develop or how can they advance in their career?
Roger: Well, it’s a very interesting question. I wonder if you’ve probably even though it about more than I have. But I’ll give you the top of my mind answer.
For starters project management in the sense that we’re using it, in the white collar sense is as much a social exercise as it is a technical or conceptual exercise.
I think project managers have the skills of understanding people, aligning people to jobs that will make them productive and happy.
It is that sense of saying I need a bunch of people to be able to pull the project together. How do you get that to happen? You get that to happen by having the dialogue and having flexibility, and not having such a firm view of this is the way it’s going to happen. It is about being great at organising, motivating people and creating a context. I think that’s going to be the great 21st century skill.
Antonio: I recently talked to Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing and Ford, and he actually did and said something similar. He named his leadership approach “Working together”. He was not the expert, but he was there to motivate, put people working where they are best at and make everyone work together as a team.
Roger: I’ve never met Alan but I’ve heard great things about him.
Antonio: The good thing about project is that robots will not take them over, right?
Roger: No, no. They will not.
Antonio: It has been an absolutely honour to spend a bit of time with such a brilliant mind and great person. I’m sure I will be watching this video many times, it’s such a gift to hear your thinking. I hope we can keep in touch.
Roger: Yes, we share a common cause on something that is necessary to the world. I think that if we can increase productivity to 3% or 4% a year annually in the white collar parts of companies, by figuring out how to do projects better, it would make a step change difference in the global GDP per capita. This is a very big global issue, so count me as interested.
Antonio: What a brilliant way to finish our conversation! Thank you Roger, thank you very much!